There has been much talk recently on gender equality. We heard UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova at the International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies 2015 (IYL 2015) Opening Ceremony making specific mention to women’s rights. The Director-General has chaired multiple panels and endorsed several initiatives to address what she views as a human rights strategic item in UNESCO’s agenda for the 21st century. Indeed, there is a growing realization that the gender divide is pervasive throughout the ages and the cultures. Today, also in advanced societies, gender inequality knows no limits throughout socio-economic hierarchies; albeit, often with trace dosage, but with self-perpetuating, long-lasting consequences nonetheless.
Men have historically populated the science and technology worlds. Paradoxically, the statistically fewer contributions by females through history often go uncelebrated; this trait not been exclusive to the sciences. Despite multiple initiatives to enhance diversity by most stakeholders, this promotion is not yet yielding acceptable results. Many argue it is a question of time; where purposely-encouraged female participation has only been in place for a few decades. The extrapolation of current growth rates, however, often predicts convergence in excessively long timeframes. Others argue that unintended bias, which both male and female are known to exercise as a result of inherited socio-cultural traits, is playing an important role. And it is precisely in this realm; in the specifics of “how things are done”, where behavior change can really have an impact towards inclusion.
The behavior-shift approach has caught up the attention of the European Commission (EC), a key stakeholder in the promotion of gender diversity. Recently, in an attempt to step up efforts aimed at increasing women representation throughout all scientific, academic, and leadership structures, the EC has built solid ground through a pledge. Namely, the pledge aims at a participation blockade to those events where lack of female representation remains a blatant reality.
The communication has been issued in March 2015 by Robert Madelin, Director of Directorate General for Communications Networks, Content, and Technology, (DG Connect) at the EC. DG Connect is charged with the development and use of Information and communication technologies (ICTs) throughout European Member States to promote economic growth by way of, amongst others, the financial support of research and innovation. On those lines, the Coordination subdirectorate at DG Connect leads Horizon 2020; the major financial pool for scientific research in Europe.
Under the title: “All-male panels in tech: we say no!” the blog posting unveils a willingness to explore alternative, proactive measures towards equality. This initiative is a step up beyond a sustained effort at the EC that had encouraged female representation exclusively by policy recommendation in the context of good practices. In particular, the pledge in the March 3rd announcement stipulates a minimum of two female speakers at DG Connect-organized events, refusal to participate in all-male panels if arranged by outside stakeholders in the European Union, and the communication of these measures to those stakeholders outside the European Union; in an effort to internationalize this newly created practice.
The posting acknowledges that former approaches at DG Connect, where diversity was either recommended or encouraged, had little influence not only on panel composition but also on its outcomes. The newly emitted pledge aims at both fronts. In this new scheme, not only are panels required to be adequately assembled, but also all voices of their constituency are to be adequately projected and considered. In this new scheme, the presence of a minimum of two women in any given panel is necessary, but not sufficient; they also have to be heard, and their opinions adequately considered and projected, by assuring: “…everyone can listen to what women say about digital technology and make sure their voice is heard more widely”.
SPIE Past Presidents, Professors Maria Yzuel and Katarina Svanberg have promptly applauded this initiative. They believe it will contribute to the visibility of scientific work of women; after emphasizing the current disparity of opportunities available to women in high-visibility forums. In fact, scientific societies have launched multiple programs to rise female representation, and Dr. Eugene Arthurs, CEO at SPIE has quoted an increase of 25% in female representation amongst society membership within the last 5 years.
Looking forward, one could wonder; will the seeding nature of this blockade escalate to Parliament-approved legislation? Such a development would be in step with German and Swedish Government mandates stipulating quotas of women on company boards. And will the “All-male panels in tech: we say no!” practice be extending to EC funded program in the near future? The answers to these questions are unclear at this time; but they would certainly keep up consistency throughout the DG Directorate and the European Union at large.
Eva M. Campo is the Director of the Laboratory for Matter Dynamics, where she conducts research in multiple areas of material science ranging from soft matter, through graphene to wide-bandgap semiconductors. Prof. Campo has international experience in assembling and coordinating large-scale scientific and technical projects, having successfully founded NOMS (Nano-Opto-Mechanical Systems FP7 NMP-22896). In addition, she contributed to securing NSF-MRSEC funding during the 2012 solicitation at the University of Pennsylvania by providing key strategic advice, in her capacity as Assistant Education Director. She is a SPIE senior member, and serves in multiple committees at SPIE and MRS.